voice for democracy

A history of 'freedom' and the Northern Rivers vaccine divide – Echonetdaily

Protesters against mandatory vaccination in Byron. Photo supplied

Among the many myths about the COVID-19 vaccines is a belief they contain live virus that a vaccinated person will shed in social and intimate circumstances. Along with many other vaccine myths, this belief is contributing to a significant divide in the Northern Rivers community.
By good fortune, sensible management and an open-air lifestyle, the Northern Rivers has been largely free of COVID-19 infections, even the Delta variant.
As many epidemiologists have noted, however, this situation will change quite dramatically as borders are opened and the region becomes flooded with COVID carriers. Our only hope, the government and health experts claim, is to vaccinate or to be excluded from social mingling. The torpid uptake of vaccination in the Northern Rivers can be partly explained by a lack of urgency and issues of vaccine availability – including the availability of vaccines other than AstraZeneca.

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Nevertheless, areas like Byron and Mullumbimby have comparatively low vaccination rates and a number of highly vocal ‘anti-vaxxer’ communities. These anti-vaxxer groups can be identified through their particular cultural practices, beliefs and knowledge systems. They can divided into three broad categories:

Despite a lack of support from Bundjalung woman Delta Kay, and condemnation by police, hundreds of protesters marched up Jonson Street on Saturday. At the Peace Pole near the Surf Club, speakers questioned the validity of COVID-19 lockdowns, border closures, government interventions and mandatory vaccinations.
Photo Jeff ‘Relatively Free Since 1986’ Dawson

This focus on rights and freedom is actually the common thread between all these anti-vaxxer groups. While the rhetoric might vary according to the specific political and cognate disposition of the group, there is a general agreement that vaccination and vaccine passports are part of the government’s project of repression. Beginning with suspicions about the virus itself, all three groups seem convinced that any form of state power is fundamentally pernicious – representing a conspiracy against individuals and personal autonomy.
Paradoxically, ‘freedom’ is also the central mantra for counter arguments, which insist that vaccination will protect us and restore our social and economic pleasures.

Hundreds of locals gathered outside the Mullumbimby Council chambers to protest against Australia’s COVID laws. Image: Jeff Dawson.

This paradox is not surprising, given the high value that our modern world places on the concept of freedom and personal choice. Much of the division around COVID-19 vaccines can be directly connected to similar debates around the concept of freedom itself. These debates have a deep and prolonged history emerging in ancient Chinese, Vedic, Abrahamite and Western religion and philosophy.
By and large, our intrigue with the idea of freedom (or free will) is an effect of radical social changes associated with the rise and spread of agriculture and human settlement. Beginning around 12,000 years ago, these changes altered the ways in which humans interacted and conceived of themselves and their relationship with the universe.
Most significantly, these changes encouraged human groups to store economic value, encouraging military systems and the uneven distribution of wealth and power. An individual’s desires, pleasures and needs, therefore, became a contingency of power and new forms of social stratification. Religion and philosophy attempted to explain and sometimes resolve this disjunction between each individual and the social whole. Most often, the disjunction was resolved through the explicit exercise of power and violence.
Capitalist economics is really an incarnation of this system whereby individuals battle to impose their personal needs and desires over others. The difference between modern democratic states and totalitarian political systems (past and present) is largely a matter of how the rhetoric (or discourse) of ‘freedom’ is deployed. Democracy and liberalism have evolved as another strategy for resolving the problem of individual and collective needs. Capitalist and consumer economics require an imaginary of choice in order to function. But these choices have to be constrained within a system of uneven distribution of wealth and social stratification.

Caroline and Holly English ready to get the jab.

So, there must always be a gap between what different people on the scale can afford in order to ensure the uneven distribution of pleasures and power.
So why don’t the masses just take what they want? Democracy was invented in order to give a sense in which the system is fair and logical. It was designed by a particular political class in the nineteenth century in order to resolve the disjunction between individuals and the social whole. Democracy and related discourses of freedom give us the sense that we actually do have choices and that all of us are equal in our ability to access power.
The difficulty has proved, of course, that social stratification and the power of the state to exercise violence remain entirely unresolved.
Whatever the rhetoric of freedom might ensure, democracy was never designed to endow universal freedom through the deconstruction of social stratification and power. Democracy was an invention of a particular social class seeking to defend itself against aristocratic power on the one hand and the ‘unwashed’ masses on the other. Democracy was a protective system which fortified the power and privilege of the owners of capital.
Innumerable social philosophers have explained this divide between the rhetoric of democratic freedom and the reality of social stratification. They ask the question – are we actually able to think freely at all, or is our thinking simply conditioned by prevailing ideologies? Antonio Gramsci called this ‘hegemony’: major social institutions give us a semblance of choice, but really we are just negotiating with our own delusions.
If nothing else, the global COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that social stratification remains a powerful force, even in the spread of disease and the means by which vaccines are being distributed.
In considering the vaccination issue, therefore, we can see that the ‘choice’ is really a modest one. Neither the vaccine nor its resistance is a matter of freedom at all. ‘Freedom’ in the context of our modern world remains a relative term, a fantasy that is bound to our systems of stratification, power and violence.
As we see with other great global crises – climate change, species extinction, warfare, endemic poverty – we ordinary citizens have extremely limited capacity for actual choice because our knowledge systems are so constrained by the cultural trajectory that begun 12,000 years ago. We can only choose from the range of options that the historical volition permits. Our capacity for thinking, that is, struggles to break through the prevailing knowledge systems.
The vaccination question isn’t a matter of freedom. It’s a matter of how this global pandemic was shaped by zoonosis, population pressure and the ceaseless expansion of human economy. COVID-19 is not simply a phenomenon of the past two years, Chinese militarism, or European colonialism. It’s an effect of this deep history and humans’ unthinking expansionism and the correlative destruction of our life systems.
COVID-19, therefore, needs to be understood as a symptom, more than a cause.

Understanding what’s in a vaccine. Photo Shutterstock

So, should we all get vaccinated and be compelled to bear our vaccine passports in order to mingle and move?
I can only say ‘yes’, but not because it will endow – or restrict – my capacity for freedom. Rather, I think it’s worth extending human survival a little longer in the hope that we might address the horrors we have inflicted on these life forms and systems.
Beyond that, I suspect that most anti-vaxxers in the Northern Rivers will surrender when a close friend becomes really sick or they realise that the COVID vaccine contains neither live virus nor compliance pills. Some resistance will remain. But don’t fool yourself that you are expressing freedom of choice or your personal rights. You will not affect social stratification or the power of the state. Sadly, you will just be putting yourself at risk for the sake of a fantasy.
♦ Jeff Lewis is an anthropology professor. He is a former Research Dean at RMIT and Professorial Fellow at the London School of Economics. His books include Language Wars and Media and Human Violence: From Savage Lovers to Violent Complexity. He recently completed a government-commissioned research report on Right Wing Extremism in Australia.
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Insightful, balanced and thoughtful article! The author brings a contextually deeper understanding of the underlying issues regarding the need to vaccinate. This piece resonates with the recent and powerful article by Indigenous X writer Nayuka Gorrie, a Kurnai (Gunai), Gunditjmara, Wiradjuri and Yorta Yorta woman. She writes: “knowing the history of the ways our bodies have been abused and used, I know that still, the vaccine is the best way I can keep my family and community safe. To reject this free vaccine feels like wasting a privilege and an affront to my ancestors who died from immunisable illnesses. I wrote to a friend a few weeks ago who was watching Covid19 sweep its way across her Gomeroi country. I wrote that the way our community cares for each other is our greatest strength right now. Where white culture leaves their most vulnerable behind, it is in our cultures to protect each other to ensure our survival. Right now, with the information we have, we are all we have to keep each other safe.” Source: (https://indigenousx.com.au/why-vaccination-presents-an-ethical-dilemma-for-us-but-remains-the-best-way-to-keep-our-families-safe/?fbclid=IwAR0Q5rorhEJ3N2kXnOkUaF5-w0cjJlkP3NzAaezZqILbnsPJbdh_MJXxClo)
Yes!
The vaccine does not vaccinate. My understanding of vaccination is that I will be immune to the disease.
Hmm, I can’t tell if that makes you group 2, group 3 or willfully ignorant? More protection than a face mask, less protection than being a hermit.
Proven to make you less likely to contract covid, or get really ill, and less infectious in shedding the virus, and infectious for a shorter period. Does your understanding extend to how much you value your parents and other elders in the community?
Excellent article!
So many who bang on about their ‘rights’ refuse to accept that with every right come responsibilities.
One’s right to refuse vaccination must be balanced by one’s responsibility not to infect, or put at risk, others.
I think injecting a live virus is of least concern among the covid vaccine hesitant, (NOT ANTI-VAXER). It is the deliverance of a newly formed technology called mRNA vaccine that is not even defined as a vaccine and is still in experimental phases. I love the balanced writing here though real concerns are not upheld. But that is the wiggly thread all journalists are experiencing to have an unfiltered, ‘think tank’ discourse is – scary.
We don’t need more of your bias Vax pushing ideals. This is not democracy it’s pure invasion of human rights. Simple.
I know you’ve been warned by the Gov to only promote the Vax but maybe you could just say nothing. We don’t care about your personal opinions and attempts to coherse innocent organic beings by trying to make there spiritual truths and alternative medicines quakery.
Bingo! Congrats you’ve got the trifecta wow – Group 1, 2 AND 3!

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